Tips on remembering student names

I am not good at remembering names and faces. In the small town where I live, I am constantly running into people and trying to recall if I know them from my son’s school or from musical theater or from church or just where we might have met.

So you can imagine the difficulty I have remembering the names of my students. I know that for some people this isn’t a big deal, but I have always struggled with it. So in case you are as forgetful as I am, here are some tips to help learn student names at the beginning of a term.

Since my students are above high school age, it doesn’t work to require them to sit in particular seats. So, as I take attendance on the first day, I note which students are sitting where by making an instant seating chart on the fly. Then, while I have students engaged in activities, I make a few notes about the students next to their names. I might make a comment about a student’s appearance: “wears glasses,” “big earrings,” short blonde hair.” I might note that they remind me of someone else that I know. Or I might write down something about their voice or movements to help me remember them.

If I have a class of students from many different countries, I’ll make a note of where they’re from. If the particular student name is a new one for me, I may make a note about the gender.

One thing that I avoid is making notes about clothing. Students are rarely so obliging as to wear the same thing to class every day, and “blue jeans” is not very useful for distinguishing one student from another!

At the second class meeting, I test myself. I’ll look at the student names and try to remember which student is which as I call their names. To reinforce the names further, I walk around the class and use each student’s name as I hand out papers to them. Also over the next few days, I refine my names “cheat sheet” as needed. I try to find distinctions between students that I have trouble telling apart or focus on students whose names I have difficulty remembering. Sometimes, as I commute to work, I’ll review the names of the students and try to visualize them, so that I know who I might have missed.

Sooner or later, I’ve got everyone’s name memorized and connected to their face. Am I alone in this difficulty? What tips or techniques do you have for remembering the names of new students?

About Joe McVeigh

Joe McVeigh
Joe McVeigh works independently in the field of English language teaching as a consultant, author, and teacher trainer. For over 25 years he has taught at universities in the United States, including the California Institute of Technology, the University of Southern California, and the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. He has lived and worked in countries including China, India, Chile, the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Saudi Arabia. He has taught students from more than 50 countries. He is co-author with Ann Wintergerst of Tips for Teaching Culture: Practical Approaches to Intercultural Communication (Pearson Longman) and a co-author with Jennifer Bixby of two books in the Q: Skills for Success series (Oxford University Press). In addition to writing and consulting, Joe speaks at conferences and workshops, and maintains a blog and website on issues of interest to teachers of ESL. You can also find him on Twitter: @JoeMcVeigh. Joe is a past chair of TESOL's Intensive English Programs Interest Section and served on the TESOL Board of Directors from 1995-1998. He lives with his wife and son in Middlebury, Vermont, USA.
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12 Responses to Tips on remembering student names

  1. Olena says:

    For the first 1-2 weeks of the semester/term (depending on the number of students in class and lessons per week), I usually use name-tags for my students – I distribute them at the beginning of each lesson, and collect them back at the end of each, paying attention to faces and making connections to their name-tags while doing so. When students are busy with some group or individual work, I also walk around focusing on the face and name-tag of each. Having them sit in the same spots for those first few lessons (they tend to anyway) helps me a lot in this process, too.

  2. Rachel L says:

    I’m a person who is bad at remembering people’s names; sometimes, it even takes me several months to distinguish my classmates and their names. I like the way you mention here–taking notes such as wearing class or hairstyle. It is really helpful since people seldom change these stuffs as clothing. Also, testing oneself is another idea I never think of. I should try this next time!!

  3. time clocks says:

    This happens with everybody some feel comfortable to remember the phone numbers or roads or names whether it belongs to students or familty members. God has gifter every body a different blessing so i like you idea to remember the names by identifying with different things like their localaties, outfits, glasses etc.
    Although it is tough to do but i think its a nice idea to do and keep practicing.

  4. Mary Kuck says:

    I have always had a serious problem with names. This year I am asking students to describe themselves with an adjective that begins with their first name. So far, it’s working very well–Righteous Rohan, Joyful Jermaine, Helpful Hugh–three from memory from a class I have seen only once, a week ago, with two different classes in between!

  5. Judie Haynes Judie Haynes says:

    When I taught Elementary ESL, each group of students had a folder for the work they did in my class. During the first class, I would ask students to write their names on the folder. I wrote the names of my students phonetically on a piece of paper. When they returned the next day, I would pass out the folders by saying the names. After doing that for a few days, I generally could remember and pronounce the names of all my students.

  6. Hey, Joe: Just ran across this article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed on remembering student names. Looks like you’re using some tried and true tricks.

    http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/student-names-and-the-memory-palace/35664?sid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en

  7. Miles A says:

    These are great tips. I may also take pictures of students holding up their name plaques for reference later.

    What happens if all the names are foreign to you though? As an ESL teacher each one of my students has a name that is new, foreign to me, and difficult to pronounce.

    Should I try and pronounce their name as I pass out papers, even though I will most likely get it wrong every time?

    • Joe McVeigh Joe McVeigh says:

      Taking photos is a great idea if you have a lot of students. I even know of some colleges and universities that let professors view a “photo roster” of the students in their class. Of course you can make your own. I would do your best to learn the pronunciation of your students’ names. After you’ve spent some time in the field, you will begin to recognize the most common names from certain countries, as well as the pronunciation patterns. And, if you get the pronunciations wrong at first, you’ll be a good model for your students to take risks and try new things!

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